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The Japanese flag in Hong Kong

The Crown Colony Before the War

(…) saw emaciated young people near the docks today. They slowly dragged themselves forward in rows of two, seven or eight people in a row, tied together with ropes and led by a gendarmes. No idea where they were taken (…) There was brief confusion when some of these skeletons rushed onto the food baskets of a market woman on the side of the road and rushed to her mouth. Merciless reckoning, they were kicked and beaten (…) I could not understand why these poor guys had come into the world just to die of hunger.

Diary entry by Chan Kwan-Po, librarian at the University of Hong Kong, recorded on May 27, 1945

Even with the smallest offences, people were executed if they were unlucky enough to fall into the clutches of the dreaded Japanese military police, the Kempeitai. She didn’t need a reason to execute people on the open road. It was the law, like the Gestapo in Germany. My school friend’s grandfather was a farmer. The Japanese shot him down in the field. Without any reason. They simply used it as a living target. A great-uncle of mine died in the same way.

In the 1930s, before Japan unleashed the war against China, Hong Kong had become a major commodity hub in East Asia after a century of steady development. Trade with mainland China boomed, while the British saw their colony as a strategically important military base in the region. Yet pre-war Hong Kong did not have nearly the appeal and reputation of the cosmopolitan, internationally respected, and thriving financial center of Shanghai.

According to the last pre-war census conducted in 1931, Hong Kong was home to 840,000 people, about a third of whom said they were born there. In general, the feeling of belonging to Hong Kong was weak among the Chinese. Their priority was to make money there and live in a relatively safe environment. Most Chinese therefore expected and demanded little from the colonial government. Since even wealthy Chinese were unable to rise politically and pursue careers, they at least tried to improve their social status by seeking to be admitted to prestigious organizations or clubs – such as the Sanitary Board, the District Watch Committee, and the Tung Wah Hospital.

Relations between the Chinese and the European communities in Hong Kong were not cordial. Although the Chinese exerted considerable economic influence in pre-war Hong Kong, discrimination against The Chinese was commonplace. For example, one ordinance, the Peak District Preservation Ordinance, explicitly stipulated that Chinese people would not be allowed to live at this highest point of the Crown Colony without a special permit from the British governor if the prescribed limit of 788 feet above sea level was exceeded. In addition, Chinese were not allowed to stay at certain hotels or enter their public spaces. This external discrimination was reflected in a strict separation of classes within the European Communities.

After Japan expanded its major military offensive against China in July 1937, one major city after another came under the control of imperial troops – first Shanghai, then Nanking (Nanjing), Wuhan, and Guangzhou. The effects of the war, especially the case of Guangzhou in October 1938, particularly affected Hong Kong. Hundreds of thousands of refugees flocked to Hong Kong within two to three years, with a population of more than 1.6 million. By comparison, in 1937, one million people had lived there. No wonder this has caused enormous social problems. All the essentials, from housing to food to medicines, were suddenly in short supply. The security situation was precarious, public order was out of kilter. Despite all the joint efforts of the government and local aid organisations, it has not been possible to improve people’s living conditions. Hunger, malnutrition and epidemics were particularly predominant in refugee areas. People had to get used to the sight of corpses lying all over the streets.

Before Hong Kong was immediately drawn into the war, the relatives of British residents were evacuated to Australia between 1940 and 1941. Not infrequently to the dismay of the wives, who would have preferred to stay with their husbands. In this case, too, discrimination between people who had a British passport and those who considered themselves “pure-bred Britons” were the order of the day. According to the emergency regulations in force at the time, the evacuation of certain British citizens (mainly Hong Kong-Chinese) and Portuguese and Eurasian families who had resided in Hong Kong for generations was not envisaged. Only the overflowing war events contributed to the fact that more bad blood did not boil up.

Moreover, British military commanders were firmly convinced that the local population would not be relied upon in the event of outbursts of hostilities. Hesitantly, they agreed to combine Portuguese living in the Crown Colony into special companies and to integrate them into the Hong Kong Volunteer Defense Corps alongside a few hand-picked Chinese trained at elite British schools. However, the establishment of Chinese special companies did not take place. Chinese men were at most obliged to serve as truck drivers or for other non-military duties. Only in exceptional cases were they handed weapons to defend themselves and their families. Even in the police units, there were almost a handful of Chinese who had no chance of ever being appointed as officers or inspectors. Thus, an excellent opportunity to ensure the loyalty of the majority of hong Kong’s population was wasted.

The capture of Hong Kong

The battle for Hong Kong lasted only a short time compared to the offensives against the Philippines, Burma and Malaya and was quickly decided. Maj. Gen. Christopher M. Maltby, commander of Hong Kong’s armed forces, made up of British, Canadian, and Indian troops, as well as selected local volunteers, later explained that the associations subordinated to him were “prisoners of fate.” Resistance was limited at best to gestures to make Winston Churchill’s appeal that the British Empire not simply be surrendered without a fight seems entirely implausible. When the Japanese invaded, they faced only 12,000 men, including 3,000 Indians, who had the highest number of casualties, with 600 dead.

The Battle of Hong Kong was fought in two phases. The first phase, which lasted from 8 to 13 December 1941, concerned the New Territories and the Kowloon Peninsula. Between 18 and 25 December, the island itself was affected. On Christmas Day 1941, at 15:25 local time, Governor Sir Mark Young officially announced the surrender. A historical act; never before had a British colony hoisted the white flag and surrendered to enemy troops. The defenders struggled stubbornly only in the final moments before the capitulation. After that, when their troops and medical personnel had already surrendered, the advancing Japanese units carried out several massacres. In this final phase of the battle, there were heavy losses on both sides: more than 2,000 dead defenders faced nearly 700 japanese soldiers, according to the official version of the Japanese General Staff. However, this figure may have been higher.

The civilian population suffered the most, suffering even the most painful losses. To this day, however, it is not known how many people lost their lives at that time. Exact figures are so difficult to determine because many refugees were in Hong Kong during the fighting, whose deaths were not registered anywhere. And after the fighting, a large number of refugees were driven out of the city, they died in unknown places. The victims of the local residents were also not recorded. The blood toll was particularly high in the densely populated coastal areas of northern Hong Kong, which were the target of fierce Japanese air and artillery attacks. Moreover, since during the Japanese occupation, about half of the local residents left Hong Kong – voluntarily or under duress – and most did not return to the city after the end of the war, it remains impossible to determine the exact number of civilian casualties.

The Japanese Occupation

The first days of the Japanese occupation were marked by chaos and anarchy. Looting, destruction and rape were the order of the day. Dr. Li Shu-Fan, a prominent Chinese and eyewitness to the Hong Kong case, estimates her number at more than 10,000:

“The exact number of women raped is likely to remain in the dark. But there were many victims: 10,000 may have been under-attacked, and the methods used were repulsively brutal. In my hospital alone, we treated victims from young teens to over-60s.”

In one of the first statements published by the Executive Committee of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce on January 13, 1942, she called for “the protection of housewives by reopening brothels.” Rape, looting and lawlessness had a special effect from a Japanese point of view; the Chinese should be systematically unsettled and forced to collaborate. The price that the people of Hong Kong had to pay was high: in order to enjoy stability and order, they had to work with the occupiers. Of course, this was not appreciated in Hong Kong as in those countries that the Nazis had invaded and occupied.

The Japanese occupation period marked two phases. Initially, a comparatively short period of direct military occupation was held, which ended on February 22, 1942, when Lieutenant General Isogai Rensuke became the first Japanese “governor of the Captured Territory of Hong Kong”. During the first year of his reign, conditions were calm according to the circumstances. This changed from the beginning of 1943, when Japan’s maritime trade was severely affected by the destruction of the lion’s share of its merchant fleet, and imports to and from Hong Kong were likealyvious. From 1944, living conditions deteriorated dramatically; food supplies were running out, the population was starving and the economy was in a catastrophic state.

Throughout their occupation, the Japanese failed to create a unified administrative structure in Hong Kong. There were different administrative apparatuses, each with autonomous decisions – the armed forces, the civil administration, and the gendarmerie – that often operated in isolation from each other or even against each other. The result was wrong decisions, inefficiency and arbitrariness. Isogai practiced a (war) policy that was thoroughly racist: a struggle of the colored races against the whites. Although it allowed some foreign concessions to be returned to the puppet regime in Nanking, the Japanese did not dream of leaving Hong Kong to any Chinese regime or returning it to China. For Japan, Hong Kong was and remained an “occupied territory” that was never to be reopened.

“Japanization” of public life

The Japanese did not miss an opportunity to denounce the past evils of colonialism and to publicly criticize the discrimination to which Asians were subjected under British rule. But they listed themselves as colonialists whose rule was in many ways more brutal, bureaucratic, corrupt, and inefficient than that of the British. The Japanese officials, usually assisted by units of the armed forces, acted like feudal warlords. Two things contributed significantly to the fact that the alienation between Hong Kong Chinese and Japanese was never overcome and that cooperation between the two did not materialise: on the one hand, the corrupt, irrational and extremely violent style of government. On the other hand, the Japanese occupiers did everything possible to stifle any approach to social equality and to make Chinese necessarily Japanese.

The population was bullied and harassed with a multitude of decrees and orders that even regulated details in everyday life. So, whenever they passed a Japanese guard post, people had to bow to it; Mahjong, a popular pastime among Chinese, and dancing in public places were banned; Cholera vaccinations were carried out forcibly; an annual house cleaning campaign has been imposed on the inhabitants; Carrying hard-to-obtain identity documents, which would strictly control any journey to and from China and Macao, was mandatory, a rule that did not exist before the war. Violation of these rules could immediately be used by the Japanese to humiliate or severely punish any Chinese. Eyewitnesses told me that executed victims of the Kempeitai were tied together with ropes or barbed wire and thrown into the dock.

Hong Kong’s “Japaneseization” began immediately after the capitulation. First, all visible signs of British rule – such as English street signs, advertisements, and business names – were removed, streets, districts, and public buildings were renamed, or japanese inscriptions were added. This was done with targeted indoctrination of the population, which had to be guided by Japanese values and ideals. Most Japanese festivals, holidays and ceremonies were also celebrated in Hong Kong. And everyone was expected to take part. In schools, curricula have been changed; Japanese became a compulsory subject. Overall, however, only a few young people were able to press the school bench during the entire occupation; Education and training remained a luxury. The Hong Kong government’s 1946 annual report stated that “as far as this can be seen, less than one tenth of the 120,000 students who had attended school in 1941 have been eligible for schooling throughout the Japanese occupation. By August 1945, this proportion had fallen to just 3,000 students.”

The Japanese froze bank balances, and people who had even larger cash reserves soon sat on a pile of worthless paper. The Hong Kong dollar was replaced by the Japanese military yen, which became the only valid means of payment from June 1943. Once wealthy businessmen and traders were ruined overnight. A considerable sum of the Hong Kong dollars so “acquired”, which was still convertible and valued outside Hong Kong, reached the nearby Portuguese colony of Macao. In this then neutral city, the Japanese were able to use the money to maintain their war machine. The extent of Japan’s economic exploitation and plundering of Hong Kong cannot yet be accurately measured. Local traders and industrialists were encouraged to organize “voluntarily” in associations to support Japan’s war.

Between 1942 and 1945, Hong Kong’s population declined by about one million people. Many wandered as a result of the turmoil of the war, until eventually some of them landed in their former South China Homeland, where the Japanese had already pursued a policy of scorched earth. The turn of the year 1944/45 was the time of the worst and greatest mass deportations. People were picked up indiscriminately on the streets, crammed behind tightly guarded barriers, gradually locked in transit camps or transported on boats, many of which capsized in the stormy swell of the South China Sea and tore the occupants to their deaths.

“Insecure, traumatized and brutalized”

In March 1945, posters appeared calling on young and strong men to work in the mines on Hainan Island off the coast of Vietnam. They were even promised a good reward. A total of 7,000 Chinese followed suit. They were shipped to Hainan and had to build roads and work in iron ore mines. 5,000 of them did not survive the hardships; they died of malnutrition, exhaustion or disease. At least half of those repatriated or expelled from Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation did not return. By the end of August 1945, Hong Kong’s population had fallen to less than 600,000. The refugees walked back to their villages, their paths littered with corpses. Some could only survive because they took off the clothes of the dead and sold them on the way – signs of a deeply unsettled, traumatized and brutalized society.